What is a Hurdy-Gurdy?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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A hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument with both a keyboard and a wheel that acts like a bow that is continuously drawn across the strings by the turning of a handle or crank. There are two kinds of strings on a hurdy-gurdy: drone or bourdon strings that play the same pitch continuously, and melody strings that change pitch when adjustments are made to the keyboard. Both types of strings are adjusted using tuning pegs. The keyboard of a hurdy-gurdy is arranged like the keyboard of a piano.

The name hurdy-gurdy was also applied, incorrectly, to the barrel organ, possibly because it was also played by turning a crank, which has led to a certain amount of confusion. The situation of names is confusing enough as it is, however, because the hurdy-gurdy is or was also known as: Bauernleier, chifonie, ghironda, Leier, lyra, organistrum, rotata, sambuca, and sinfonia.

The hurdy-gurdy has filled many and various roles in the world of music. It has been used by street musicians, beggars, in church music, to accompany dance at public celebrations and weddings, in parades, in the orchestration of ballet, at salon gatherings, in chamber music, and in operas. It has been used in Rameau wrote for hurdy-gurdy, as did Donizetti and both Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.


Recently, “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” by the singer Donovan brought the instrument into the public eye, and yes, there is now such a thing as jazz hurdy-gurdy. Noted players include Nigel Eaton, Mike Eaton, Steve Tyler, Michael Muskett, Valentin Clastrier, Gaston Rivière, Patrick Bouffard, Gilles Chabenat, Marc Anthony, Cliff Stapleton, and Duncan Moss.

There are several hurdy-gurdy festivals, including the Saint Chartier Festival, held in the summer and including competitions, and a Hurdy-gurdy Festival celebrated in Lancaster, England in the spring, beginning in 2007. The Over the Water Hurdy-Gurdy Festival is held in the fall in Fort Flagler State Park in Washington, and claim that the band of hurdy-gurdies formed there is the largest in the Western Hemisphere.


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